Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Oxen Under the Font

Over the last few days a number of blogs have reported on a recent letter from the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy that instructs bishops to withhold providing parish registers to requests from Mormons (LDS). The reason for this lies in the Mormon belief in posthumous baptism, in which a living Mormon is “baptized” in the name of a deceased non-Mormon person. The practice has previously caused controversy, as in the case of protests from Jewish groups on the “baptism” of Holocaust victims.

The notices on the blogs were also accompanied by photos of a Mormon font for these posthumous baptisms. The photos triggered a visual memory from my earliest days of art history study.

Reinier de Huy, Baptismal Font (showing scene of the Baptism of Jesus
Mosan, 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Barthelemy
In the early 12th century, the valley of the Meuse River (referred to as the Mosan region) produced some of the finest metalwork of the Middle Ages. Flowing through what is now France, Belgium and the Rhineland region of modern Germany, the artists were heirs to the Carolingian classical revival of the 9th century. The last and best known artist is Nicholas of Verdun, who created both the great altarpiece of Klosterneuburg Abbey, the beautiful shrine of the Virgin for Tournai Cathedral and the fabulous shrine of the Three Kings for Cologne Cathedral. But the image that came to mind when I saw the Mormon font is the beautiful work of the earliest of the major metal artists of the region. It is the baptismal font made by Rainier de Huy, sometime between 1107 and 1118. It was made for the church of Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts (Our Lady of the Baptismal Font) in the town of Liège. It remained in the same church until the French Revolutionary wars, when Liège was seized by the French and the church was destroyed. The font survived and in 1804 was placed in the church of St. Barthlémy, Liège, where it remains today.

Reinier de Huy, Baptism of Craton
From Baptismal Font
Mosan, 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Bartelemy
The font is decorated with five scenes of baptism, beginning with the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. Among the scenes of subsequent adult Christian baptisms are two which show the use of similar fonts. The figural style is remarkably beautiful and classical in spirit. Each is presented as an individual, rounded figure, with classical drapery that hints at the weight and structure of the body beneath. One might almost imagine it to have been produced under the influence of an artist like Donatello, three hundred years later.

Rainier’s font rests on a stone base from which “protrude” the head and front quarters of ten oxen. However, the font originally rested on twelve oxen. The symbolism of these creatures leads back, in typological fashion, to a correspondence between the Old and New Testaments.

In the first book of Kings, the Old Testament describes the furnishing which Solomon ordered for the Temple. Among them was:

The sea was then cast; it was made with a circular rim, and measured ten cubits across, five in height, and thirty in circumference. Under the brim, gourds encircled it, ten to the cubit all the way around; the gourds were in two rows and were cast in one mold with the sea. This rested on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east, with their haunches all toward the center, where the sea was set upon them. It was a handbreadth thick, and its brim resembled that of a cup, being lily-shaped. Its capacity was two thousand measures.” I Kings 7:23-26

Reinier de Huy, Baptism of Cornelius
from Baptismal Font
Mosan, 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Bartelemy
The “sea” is a large bronze basin, filled with water. Indeed, I Kings even gives us information about the bronzesmith who fashioned it “King Solomon had Hiram brought from Tyre. He was a bronze worker, the son of a widow from the tribe of Naphtali; his father had been from Tyre. He was endowed with skill, understanding, and knowledge of how to produce any work in bronze. He came to King Solomon and did all his metal work.” I Kings 7:13-14

Clearly, Rainier of Huy intended to recreate the work of his early predecessor Hiram of Tyre, and to demonstrate that he too had “skill, understanding and knowledge of how to produce any work in bronze”.

NIcholas of Verdun, The Molten Sea
from Klosterneuburg Altarpiece
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg (Austria), Abby Museum
In the font for Solomon’s temple, the twelve oxen clearly refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In the Liège font they represent both the Twelve Tribes and the Twelve Apostles. Such typological references, seeing correspondence between the events of the Old and New Testaments were quite common in Romanesque art, probably more common at that period than later. Later in the century, Nicholas of Verdun used the same kinds of correspondences in the Klosterneuburg altarpiece where the biblical references are arranged in three layers: before the Law, under the Law and the time Grace of Christ. Threfore, each event of Grace has two parallel events from the Old Testament, one before the Exodus, the other afterwards. Interestingly, Nicholas used Rainier’s font as the model for his picture of Solomon’s font.

In the LDS temples the oxen supporting the font may refer back to the same points, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles.
LDS font from Oquirrh Mountain Temple (Utah)
American, 2009

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